The Israeli army denied it carried out a "massacre" in the West Bank town of Ramallah Sunday, after conflicting Palestinian reports said soldiers fired on a group of Palestinian security men who had surrendered to them in an apartment building.
The number of deaths and the identity of the victims was unclear, even to the officials reporting the incident, and there was no independent confirmation available.
Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub said the incident happened at the Daraghma apartment building in downtown Ramallah. He said that a group of about 30 Palestinians -- mostly security officers and policemen who had taken shelter in the building -- were shot as they were surrendering to the Israelis.
Rajoub told Al-Jazeera television that he was talking to one of the security officers by telephone at the time. "They (Israelis troops) are massacring us," Rajoub said the man told him, adding that he heard shots and the line went suddenly dead.
Musa Abu Hemeid, a senior Palestinian medical official said that the Daraghma building -- next to the maternity hospital in Ramallah -- housed women and children, some of whom had been caught in the shooting.
But Abeer Musleh, a volunteer at the operations center of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, said the PRCS was unaware of any incident there. She said there had been an incident of "excessive shooting" by Israeli soldiers at the Ramuni apartment building, opposite the Daraghma, in which two Palestinians had been killed, and an unknown number wounded and then detained by the Israelis.
She added that the PRCS medical team had itself been briefly detained.
The spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, Major Ron Kitrey, issued a statement calling the Palestinian reports "another example of unbridled incitement by the Palestinian Authority and the person who heads it," meaning the Authority's Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The statement said that soldiers entered a building where they found an armed Palestinian wearing an explosive belt.
"When the forces entered the house the terrorist opened fire at the troops, and fled ...to the roof," the statement said, adding that soldiers chased and killed him.
The statement said it appears many armed people are in the building. Fighting there is continuing, "after the armed people refused to surrender and lay down their arms."
The head of the Israeli army's Planning Directorate, Major General Giora Eiland, said the Palestinians have been spreading lies like saying the Israelis were trying to break into Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's personal offices, and denying food to Arafat and his besieged men.
Abu Hemeid said that Israeli troops were barring medical teams from the building, and had fired at ambulances attempting to reach the scene.
"I'm certain that many of the wounded people who were injured and have been bleeding for more than 5 hours, will have died of their wounds in there," Abu Hemeid told United Press International by telephone.
He called the incident "a dirty massacre the Israeli army is carrying out against our defenseless people."
Eiland said that the Israeli army was suspicious of Palestinian ambulances because they had caught one trying to smuggle people out of Arafat's compound Saturday.
The Israeli army declared Ramallah a "closed military zone" Sunday evening and ordered all journalists to leave.
Military Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, wrote in a letter distributed among soldiers taking part in the latest operation that their task should be to "detain wanted people, hit attackers and those who send them, locate armaments, explosives and their manufacturing sites.
"Our war is not against the Palestinian people. We are fighting terror and its perpetrators. We shall conduct the fighting with determination and sensibility...be careful to preserve human dignity and not harm civilians and innocent people," the letter added.
(With additional reporting by Joshua Brilliant in tel Aviv, Israel)